France is the must-watch-country for all chess federations. Bachar Kouatly has devised an exciting turnaround of the French Chess Federation (FFE) to “a broad direction, a transversal direction, not only a narrow focus on competitive chess. Without it, the federation doesn’t exist, but with only competitive chess we remain weak.”
Chess is now helping to improve social cohesion and inclusion, explained Kouatly in his remarkable presentation: “We are a tool in the public policy in France.” The prime example is an agreement with the Ministry of Justice´s Department for Youth Protection. Adolescents at the brink of prison can now learn and play chess. The Ministry is paying the chess teachers and club membership fees.
When Kouatly was elected as Federation President two years ago, Jean-Michel Blanquer was one of his election team. Blanquer has since become Minister of Education and is opening doors for chess in France. The Federation has signed agreements with the national associations of sport in primary schools (USEP), sport in secondary schools (UNSS) and with French schools outside of France (AEFE).
An important meeting with the latter prevented Johanna Basti from coming to the London Conference. She negotiated the contracts with the national institutions on behalf of the Federation and is a member of the new Education Commission of the European Chess Union. Blanquer and Basti believe in the social potential of chess but are not rooted in competitive chess. In the past, the French Federation had been run by school teachers who, perhaps paradoxically, were oriented to competition rather than education. Their commitment to the conventional implementation of chess left no room to develop chess more widely within society.
Bachar Kouatly, who was the first Grandmaster in France and is a successful technology entrepreneur, appealed to chess federations everywhere to bring in more people from the outside: “If you are able to bring other people with fresh blood and fresh ideas who will put you out, it means you succeeded!”
Debates in smaller groups are a great way to harvest ideas and engage everyone. We invited experts to propose debating questions and to host these debates. They took place in parallel. After half an hour all participants but the hosts were invited to switch to another debate. Here are the main findings of four debates:
How can Chess Improve Intrinsic Motivation for Learning? Chess has a clear process: I watch – I think – I play. The connection between learning and improving is more obvious in chess. Taking decisions for yourself and winning games promote self-esteem and self-awareness. For all these reasons chess is a great vehicle to promote metacognition, which is the capacity to reflect on and talk about how to learn and to think. Some students feel that learning from failure in chess prepares them for real life. Some develop a passion for the game, which can transfer to other subjects or at least helps to keep children motivated for school and learning.
What is the Best Age for Scholastic Chess? Six or seven years may be the best age to start with chess if the teacher is a qualified pedagogue and introduces chess through stories and mini games. In small groups or one-on-one chess or a light version of chess can be started even earlier. Chess projects in several countries where the school age starts at six suggest that chess helps to get children ready for school. Research suggests that children starting at six or seven years tend to get more benefits from chess than those starting from nine years or older.
What are the Social Benefits of Scholastic Chess? In chess and in life you have no full control over the events, but you can always choose your response. In real life your choices depend on a social environment, which often includes peer pressure and sometimes bullying. Chess is more than an equalizer when it comes to its social implications. Perceptions of failure, what losing really is and how to deal with it, offer many opportunities to learn, which is most welcome from an educator´s point of view.
How should the Scholastic Chess Movement Organise Itself? A scholastic chess network needs to be independent from chess federations due to the divide between education-driven and competition-driven school chess. A scholastic chess network should drive professional development in chess teaching by providing best practice examples, teaching content and opportunities to network and train. It should connect practice and research. It would provide an affiliation and credentials to teachers and chess teachers and make them independent from the goodwill of chess federations which are by nature competition oriented. Usual school chess competitions favour those who learned and trained more competitive chess. A network should promote and develop new types of competitions on a more level playing field.
What would you like to debate at the sixth London Chess Conference?
An unprecented number of refugees are crossing into Europe to escape the civil war in Syria and strife in other places. They arrive at the main railway stations in Europe full of stress and fear but also hope. They are hoping a safe future.
In these troubled times, concerned citizens have stepped forward to help in any way they can. One group of chess volunteers led by Kineke Mulder, a web designer, got together to greet the refugees as they arrive at Vienna’s main railway station. They are part of an initiative known as the Train of Hope which offers a welcome and emergency aid to new arrivals. The project started as a Facebook page (Twitter #hbfvie) and just grew.
The problem, as always, is how to communicate with people when you do not speak their language such as Arabic or Farsi and they do not speak German or English. Chess provides a common language – allowing self-expression in a throng of anonymity.
Kineke and her colleagues provide a special chess welcome. They started by setting up several chess boards with tables and chairs in the station concourse. They were immediately surrounded by curious onlookers. Some gladly accepted the challenge to play chess. Others preferred to watch and learn. As usual there were the kibitzers. Soon there were concentrated and happy faces – of volunteers as well as the refugees. Vienna was representing European culture at its best in the form of chess.
Kineke, Johannes Lentner and Christian Srienz are spending between 5 and 15 hours per week on the chess boards. They are keen for other people to join them or to start their own version of meet and greet chess.